Abortion and guns reflect culture war’s hardened edge
By Tom Baxter
As we await the U.S. Supreme Court’s verdict on Roe v. Wade in the coming weeks, it’s interesting to reflect on where things stood back in 1973, when the decision that decriminalized abortion nationwide was handed down.
Beginning with Colorado in 1967, a wave of states had begun “liberalizing” their abortion laws by allowing the procedure under a variety of circumstances. Mississippi allowed abortion in the case of rape or incest, while Alabama permitted the procedure if a woman’s health was endangered by the pregnancy. Interestingly, this “liberalizing” movement took place mainly across the Sunbelt, not in the Midwest or Northeast.
Hawaii became the first state to legalize abortions on request in 1970 and was quickly followed by Alaska and New York, the first state to legalize abortions for non-residents. Washington State had become the first — and was to be the only — state to put the question to its voters. With 56 percent of the vote, they had legalized abortion in the first trimester.
We can take a couple of points from this brief review. One is that today’s heat map on the abortion issue — the places where pro-life or pro-choice fervor burns brightest — is much different from the political map of the early 1970s when it appeared the South and West were in the vanguard of a movement to increase access to abortion.
It’s unlikely that legislators in North Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi really had “liberalizing” on their minds when they amended their old abortion laws. It was more probably the realization, sharpened by the Civil Rights movement happening around them, that failure to loosen restrictions might inevitably result in the removal of all restrictions.
The second point is that the laws several states have passed in anticipation of Roe being struck down are more restrictive than what they had on the books when Roe was decided. The exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother have been swept away in several states, and there is enthusiasm by some on the right for putting contraception back on the table.
This hardening of the battle lines in the culture wars has also transformed the debate over guns, although more accurately it has ended the debate. For a while after shootings like one last week, they are all you’ll hear talked about on any channel you flip to. But this passing glare of attention has failed to break the impasse over guns so often that now, the cynicism is baked into these periodic media rituals. There’s talk about what might be done, with no expectation anything will be done.
Cynicism aside, Democratic senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have been trying to find Republican support for some very limited changes having to do with background checks and so-call “red flag” laws which allow police to petition a court to take an individual’s gun when they are considered a threat to themselves or others.
Four decades ago guns were an issue, but there was a broad middle ground in which proposals like these could be considered. If you read most polls, there still is, with very large majorities supporting background checks and barring the mentally ill from owning guns.
But a Pew Foundation poll found last year that Republicans and Democrats have grown farther apart on questions like establishing a federal gun sales database or expanding the places where it’s legal to have a concealed weapon.
Abortion and guns emerged as big political issues in the aftermath of the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. They filled a place on the right recently vacated by outspoken opponents of racial integration, and they became the central theaters in what we’ve come to call the culture wars. This is shaping up to be a summer in which both issues reach boiling point.